[Below is a guest blog by my friend Eric Bess, which deals appropriately with a topic pertaining to Easter and how to interpret the nature of the resurrection event.]
General Problems of Reasoning and Rhetoric
One of the most common arguments in the popular brand of resurrection apologetics is the idea that the resurrection of Jesus was some kind of unprecedented “anachronism.” Because Jesus was said to be resurrected individually and in advance of the collective resurrection many ancient Jews expected in a future age, no one would have ever imagined Jesus’ resurrection on their own. As N.T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop, popular New Testament theologian, and one of the most noted apologists for the resurrection today, states (“The Surprise of Resurrection,” Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, pp. 89f.):
“Nobody ever imagined that this final event would be anticipated in the case of one person in the present. No first-century Jew, prior to easter, expected it to be anything other than that large-scale, last-minute, all-people event” .
This point is emphasized heavily in N.T. Wright’s landmark tome on the resurrection of Jesus . Wright takes this to be evidence the resurrection of Jesus really happened, for only perceptions of Jesus appearing alive again after his death and an empty tomb being discovered (i.e., what the gospel stories narrate) would have generated such a belief. The best explanation for these twin phenomena is that Jesus really was resurrected . This is far from the only argument mustered by apologists, including Wright, to defend the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, but to Wright it appears to be especially important.
But do people come to believe only what they “expect” to believe, for instance? This is obviously not the case, or new religious beliefs (to say nothing of beliefs in general) would never occur to anyone. People come to hold all sorts of novel religious beliefs for a variety of reasons: theological debate, changing social conditions, individual creativity, rationalization, and so forth. It’s characteristic of new religious movements to believe things nobody believed before pretty much by definition. Although they draw from existing religious traditions, they are unconventional, and often deliberately so . That typically doesn’t require that people have good reasons to hold their beliefs, or require us to posit, if a precise explanation for the logic of how those beliefs were formed is unavailable, that those beliefs are best explained as true. Although it conflicts with the overconfident rhetoric displayed throughout his volume, for a brief moment Wright (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 693f.) seems to appreciate this point. Observe:
“But with history things are seldom that straightforward. Furthermore, when our primary datum is a widely held belief for which we are seeking the causes, matters are even more open-ended. People believe many strange things for many odd reasons.”
To be fair, Wright supplements his view of the “unprecedented” nature of the resurrection of Jesus with a number of common ancillary arguments. For example, messiahs who were killed were not, as a rule, subsequently considered to be messiahs, and their movements lost momentum and disappeared because they were considered failures . We are also to take the very fact that there was a widespread, standard belief in a future collective resurrection as a positive reason for why no one would think to say an individual was resurrected. In other words, the more the association of the language of resurrection with the idea of a future collective resurrection was ingrained in the minds of ancient Jews, the less likely it is that it would occur to anyone to apply that language to Jesus, presumably because it might come to be seen as deviating from accepted beliefs . Wright’s rhetoric is even stronger and more emphatic than that (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 447 & n.70, emphasis added):
“This shows how impossible it is to suggest … that because the hope of resurrection was ‘in the air’ at the time this somehow made it more likely that people would believe that Jesus had been raised. What the Christians believed was not what was ‘in the air’ at the time.”
These ancillary arguments attempt to provide more of a reason why the ancient Christians would avoid wanting to say Jesus had been resurrected, but the point is, “no one had thought of or expected this very precise thing before” isn’t really a sound argument for why no one would come to believe or “imagine” it on their own without being “forced,” as it were, by some in-your-face event corresponding to the belief itself.
It’s nevertheless difficult to see what massive discontinuity Wright sees between the idea of the resurrection of Jesus as an individual and the doctrine of a future collective resurrection. This is a culture where people believe in entities like messiahs and concepts like magical resurrections, so despite Wright’s insistence to the contrary, I don’t see why this should compel a historian towards his historical conclusions.